This past March we celebrated Ellianna’s 7th birthday. I thought we pretty much had the hang of that down, but this year was a different kind of day. Since we had moved out of Colorado, there was no visiting the cemetery to leave notes and flowers or eat cupcakes near the etching of her beautiful name. It felt hard and sad and unfair to be so far away from the town where we were closest to her. There was still celebrating; there was cake and pictures and remembering her big eyes and her tiny fingers, and there was wondering over what our sweet girl would be like at age 7. But it was different. I had more tears and some angry feelings about being so far from all the tangible places of her.
In April I made a whirlwind weekend trip back to Colorado for a conference, and got to stop by her resting place to leave fresh flowers on my way to the airport out of town. I experienced deep gratitude to get to be there, as well as a downpour of guilt and regret, and sadness to have to leave again. In the months of not visiting that place, a multitude of emotions had built without the trigger of release. I boarded my plane with scratchy red eyes, and a rosy face washed clear of my morning makeup.
Now July is upon us again, and we are remembering the day that we sang over Ellie and kissed each baby piggy toe and watched her body give up its hard fight and her soul fly free of all the hurting. This July though, we are back at the foothills of our breathtaking Colorado mountain, on a brief visit to the city that holds the entire history of her short and beautiful life.
I wondered over what we would do to remember and celebrate our girl this July 14th; an exciting trip packed with joyous memories and reunions, punctuated by the difficult anniversary of one of our hardest days. In past years we have prepared care packages for other families with a little one fighting for life in the picu. We have escaped far from civilization to camp under the twinkling canvas of stars, and we’ve climbed sand dunes to release soft-glowing lanterns into the sky. We’ve had quiet days in at home, and have escaped for a night away to numb our minds with the unfamiliar.
I have some unresolved thoughts about the medical staff that cared for my girl, so I considered making care packages for the doctors and nurses and techs. Each time I started to collect items though, I came up a little bit blank and overwhelmed. The emotion connected to my interactions with the picu staff is strong and difficult to sort through. I decided to keep it simple; it was still a kind gesture of acceptance for these medical professionals, but without the intense process and emotional drain of gathering well thought out individual items for care packages. I called to ask how many would be on shift in the picu where we said goodbye, and brought down a yummy and filling breakfast for when they get to break away from the business of saving lives and tending to souls.
The healing for me was in the handwritten note expressing my thanks for this calling they’ve given their lives to. I know there are days it must feel like a thankless job, and it’s possible I was one of those parents who was so fearful and wounded that I came across as more critical than grateful. It helped me to at least say that I know they are human just like me, and are simply doing the best that they can with what they know.
I could point fingers and choose to hold a grudge for our experience in that picu, but I’m trying my best to instead remember the shining moments of grace and kindness that were scattered throughout those dark days. There was the tech who sat and talked with me honestly about what his job was like, and enthusiastically encouraged me to pursue my hope of a job inside the picu. There was the nurse who in the middle of all the chaos took notice of my wincing and offered me some Motrin from her own purse to help keep me on my feet in the marathon hours of standing at that tiny bedside. There were the nurses who went scrambling for the right sized hat to snuggle over Ellie’s hair when the fresh wounds on her head made me feel panicked while I was holding her. There were the kind nurses who gently helped me bathe and dress the breathless body of my little love, and carefully made treasured keepsake molds of her perfect hands and feet. Those are the moments I want to dwell on when my mind wants to wander and question and doubt and wonder how things could have been different.
As painful as it was to walk back through that slick-floored hallway to the picu doors this week, there was a bit of healing in getting to offer loving kindness to the very people that were part of one of my deepest wounds. I hope that our gesture will help renew their fire to keep fighting for the tiny lives that rely on them, and to keep offering gentleness to the parents who may seem ungrateful and unkind in the terror and pain of watching their little loves hurt.
Our visit to the foothills of the Rocky Mountains also allowed us the privilege of visiting the cemetery where our sweet girl was laid to rest. We soaked in the comforting warmth of the sun as we sprawled on the fresh grass surrounding her headstone, and arranged a masterpiece of flowers that only barely began to capture the miracle and the beauty that was our Ellianna Grace. My littlest scrambled around picking every dandelion he could find to carefully place by her name, just as he has done since he was barely crawling around. We reminisced about the butterflies, the rainbows, the family that came to link arms with us. One of my littles retreated in tears to the car, overwhelmed with the weight of it this time. It changes a bit each time; little pieces of the joy and the sadness and the beautiful and the hard to look on have different meaning as each of us grow and learn and experience more of this life through which we filter all of our deepest emotions. We were honored to get to remember our girl in this place this week, and we surely are the luckiest to be the family that calls her ours.